If you spent any significant time in your youth raving on any of this planet’s finest dancefloors, then this collection of psychedelic inflatables might … just might… already make some time of sense. You might also be in with a shout if your name happens to be Lewis Carroll. Other than that, how best to describe it? Well, imagine you fell asleep, and then woke up in a world constructed entirely within a lava lamp. With a population including a Night Garden-esque, Upsy Daisy-style little girl and her cheeky pet dog. With clouds formed of skittles… and a giant pumpkin. Oh yes, and everything’s covered in chicken pox polka dots. It’s like walking through a particularly surreal John Lennon song. Tangerine trees and polka dot clouds. Swap Lucy for Daisy; and the diamonds for polka dots… and maybe we’re getting there.
If we’re still none the wiser, then you will just have to get down to Aviva Studios and have a look for yourself.
The ‘you’ was indeed a Daisy, the ‘me’ was your Quays Life critic, and the ‘balloons’ were the collected inflatables of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose funky fun aesthetic runs right through this exhibition, the centre piece of the (sort-of) open Aviva Studios and this year’s Manchester International Festival. And it really is fabulous. Deliciously destabilising. I recall – when this was Granada Studios – there was a room of supersized props around the spot where the new Aviva Studios now stands. That was already belittling – our own Gulliver’s Travels – but these engorged inflatables make us feel even more Lilliputian.
The procession through the exhibition is really well handled. We enter through one room of yellow tentacles, entwined around one another… and we, who walk amongst them. This is an experiential exhibition and the temptation… indeed the desire on the part of the artist… is for us all to get amongst it, to get involved. Into the next room and we see the giant inflatables from up high, as if observing a strange new world. And then, once you have your spurs, you walk down and immerse yourself in that world, strolling through the sculptures, peering into some of them, even getting into one, to engender different sensory experiences. On whatever scale, each piece exhibits intricate design and assembly; patches seemingly hand sewn, before the final piece is inflated.
The story of Kusama herself is fascinating. Now 94, she was charged with making parachutes for the Japanese forces in WWII and was only 16 when America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was when her battles with her own mental health began, and from these two fixed points we can perhaps start to trace the genesis of these supersized inspired artworks. After time living in Europe and the States, Kusama returned to Japan in 1973, checked into a hospital facility for the mentally unwell in 1977, and has lived there ever since. From such a fecund source of confusion and creativity come these magical inflatables of one cosmic imagination. Suspended animation; suspended clouds. Moments in a magical wonderland. Kusama herself says her influences are “subconscious and psychosomatic” and it’s hard to argue against that, especially when you watch Kusama herself sing about her own experiences in the video projection Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict.
We are in the clouds but also feel on the water at times. The end of the exhibition is Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe – 11 metres of pink tentacles that make us feel as though there is a monster just beneath the surface. So there are indeed the polka dot clouds of children’s imaginations, but also a sense, perhaps, of more sinister forces, under the surface. But that is a sense, only, because overall the feeling is of playfulness… of a huge, but gentle, world of freestyle fun. Into this world enters everyone from children to pensioners, all delighting in the different perspectives available, including lying down on float-y waterbed ‘clouds’ to look up at the sculptures above. (If anything, I felt there should have perhaps been a little more going on directly above the beds).
Disorienting and delightful, this is where psychedelia meets pop art; where Ivor Cutler meets Jeff Koons. So if you fancy being elevated to somewhere entirely ‘other’, get down to the Factory, keep a tight grip on reality, and hold on for some itsy bitsy, teenie weenie, yellow polka dot balloon-y.